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The future of News: from one oligarch to the next?

In the wake of a punch to the face from phone-hacking-Leveson-scandalous-British-naughtiness, and a kick to the balls from shrinking print revenues, News Corporation is contemplating splitting its TV assets from its print ones.

The plan would be to remove the newspaper drag from the share price, and hopefully bypass some of the regulatory fallout from News International’s behaviour. In Australia, that’d mean the Foxtel, FoxSports and Sky stakes going into ‘Good News’, and the papers, magazines and book publishing (HarperCollins) going into ‘Bad News’.

An obvious problem here is that Bad News would be, well, bad news.

The analysts at Nomura have worked out what the historic and forecast income statements would be for both demerged companies. They’re projecting that, despite the newspaper division halving in profit (EBIT) in 2012, future profit declines will only be in the region of 5% a year – and that global newspaper division (including digital) revenues will show slight overall growth.┬áNomura values the print company worldwide at around US$3-4 billion.

To me, that sounds optimistic. 2012 is going to be particularly awful for the newspaper division because it’s the financial year after the cash cow of the News of the World was killed, sure. Nonetheless, looking at Fairfax’s position, the Guardian’s position, News Limited’s announced cuts in Australia, the Times and Australian’s massive losses, and the ongoing march of often free, often superior (albeit seldom both) online news sources, growing sales even at the rate of inflation seems like a pipedream.

Supposedly, the WSJ’s finances are in a better state than most of the other titles, because people actually pay for business information online. The four remaining sensational big city tabloids in the group – the UK Sun, New York Post, Sydney Daily Telegraph and Melbourne Herald Sun – likely still make money, since they were never reliant on classified advertising. But the Times and the Australian are reported to lose vast sums annually, despite the imposition on both of draconian paywalls which very few people have taken up, and which mean that they form no part of the online conversation.

(the Times recently started a Tumblr for some of its opinion content, in a desperate attempt to maintain some kind of relevance to the outside world…)

Now, Rupert Murdoch is 81, and his children show absolutely no interest in taking over the print business. And Bad News would be a publicly traded company with shareholder obligations.

When you’re a vehicle for an oligarch to promote his corporate interests to politicians, in the way Mr Murdoch has used his papers for the last 50 years, bunging tens of millions of dollars a year into a respectable-opinion-leading project like the Australian or the Times can get you results far in excess of your investment: tax reliefs, exemptions from competition laws, broadcasting licenses, etc.

But once you break the link with the corporation that benefits from the regulatory corruption, lose the oligarch to retirement/senility/Old Father Time, and lose the ability to shape national conversation by excluding your pieces from most modern forms of sharing and discussion, then really, what’s the point?

So the only way for the Times and the Oz to survive is to be sold to some kind of oligarch who’d benefit from their advocacy.┬áIn London, you can barely throw a stick and not hit some overseas billionaire or other, so that should be easy enough.

In Australia – now, who might be interested in buying a voice in the national conversation? Who easily has the money to continue publishing the Australian, tearing down the paywall, making it into perhaps (if Fairfax’s desperate plans are followed through) the only free source of premium news and commentary in the country? Who has a conveniently close ideological position to the one the Australian is already pushing? And who’s just been rebuffed in her attempt to gain control of a couple of newspapers whose readers and editorial staff are completely opposed to her ideological position?

Gina for the Oz. You read it here first!

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